Samantha Power is the Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Power moved to the United States from her native Ireland in 1979, and she attended Yale University and Harvard Law School. She was a journalist for US News and World Report and The Economist, for whom she covered the war in Yugoslavia from 1993 to 1996. In 1996 she joined the International Crisis Group (ICG) as a political analyst, helping launch the organization in Bosnia. She edited, with Graham Allison, Realizing Human Rights and has recently published A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Samantha Power lives in Winthrop, Massachusetts.
A Problem From Hell (the title is taken from Warren Christopher’s characterization of the Bosnian crisis in the mid 1990’s) is a scholarly analysis of America’s policy towards genocide in the 20th century. In a compelling and engaging narrative, Samantha Power traces the United States’ policy toward genocide: the Turk’s slaughter of the Armenians in 1915, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds, the ethnic cleansings of Yugoslavia and the Hutus genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda…Suffice it to say, this is a very important book. That fact, however, shouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it.
Robert Birnbaum: You went to law school with the intention of doing what?
Samantha Power: Not with a terribly precise intention. I thought I would either go into government or go prosecute the bad guys at the Hague.
RB: So you always had an interest in going after the “bad guys”?
SP: I went to Bosnia first. I was a war correspondent first.
RB: You went to Yale…
We have a foreign policy based on our amoral economic interests run by amateurs who want to stand for something—hence the agony—but ultimately don’t want to exercise any leadership that has a cost…They say there may be as many as a million massacred in Rwanda…The militias continue to slay the innocent and the educated…Has it really cost the US nothing?
-from the journal of a US official (A Problem From Hell, p. 385)
SP: …then I worked in Washington, D.C., for a year, for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. I worked on Bosnia almost full time. And then I moved to Bosnia and was there for a couple of years—and then I went to law school just as the war ended in ’95. And then I went back and forth to Bosnia through ’95 and ’96. Then I got the idea for the book.
RB: What drew you to the war in Bosnia?
SP: It was nothing about the war—nothing about war as such. It was just that war, at that time. When I was in Washington, the person I worked for, Morton Abramowitz, was very concerned about what was going on there. As his assistant I had to learn the facts of the matter. The easy thing—which I have done for most of my life—is to block the facts out. Once you are in a position where you have to process the facts, you are stuck. It was so incredibly unjust, what was going on. And absurd, in my view—at the time, a very young view—that we were doing so little to stop the atrocities. The only skill I had was that of being able to write—just to go and be a reporter.
RB: At that time were you privy to any information that was not easily available to other people?
SP: In Washington? No.
RB: What I am trying to get at was that the information about Bosnia was available to anyone.
SP: Oh yes, yes, yes. It helped that I was tasked to process it. Before I went to work for Abramowitz the information was available to me and I ignored it. Knowledge is something you can possess on a continuum. I had in the abstract at one point and then it became very deeply personal to me, by virtue of working for him. But yes, it was all over the papers, the concentration camps, the murdering of civilians and so on.
RB: After Bosnia you went to law school with the intention of remedying, in some way, some of the things you knew about. In A Problem From Hell, you say that you have interviewed 300 people from ’93 to 2000. Did you know in ’93 that you were going to write a book?
SP: No. I did many more than 300 interviews. That number is just for U.S. officials. Once I decided to do a book in ’96, I was able to draw on all the interviews I had done. U.S. policy vis-a-vis the former Yugoslavia was always of deep interest to me because I was covering it as a journalist. So there was some segment of interviews that I had conducted in the ’93 to ’96 period, when I was a journalist, that I was able to go back through. And indeed the Srebrenica story in particular, the way that I tell it in the book is very much born of my experience on the ground in ’95. It’s a case of retrospectively seeing meaning in what I had already covered.
RB: How did you decide to do a book on genocide?
SP: It’s not a book on genocide. It’s a book on American…
RB: …policy. But one can’t avoid the tall shadows of the episodes of mass murder.
SP: At no point was the occurrence of genocide the peculiar part. For me, that’s going to be with us for a long time. It’s been with us for a long time. That doesn’t mean we should accept it. But that wasn’t a puzzle. The puzzle was the American response to it [genocide]. I came back to this country in ’95 and was struck by the Holocaust culture. It had been growing—I later learned—from the late ‘70s forward. The first five years of the 1990’s there were more NY Times and Washington Post news stories in that five-year period than there had been in the previous 45 years combined about the Holocaust.
RB: When was Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List published?
“‘Never again’ might best be defined as ‘Never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940’s.'”
SP: It didn’t become a bestseller until the movie in 1993. The Holocaust Museum opened in ’93. That was all there when I was living in this country, but I didn’t notice it in the same way. So I came back and everywhere it’s “Never again. Never again.” Here at Harvard I was taking a lot of international relations theory classes and trying to educate myself on global politics. I was struck that even the realists—the people who thought that you should intervene on behalf of America’s vital interests—everyone made an exception for genocide. So there was this quasi-public consensus, reflexive though it was, this intellectual, elite, geopolitical consensus, and yet there had just been a genocide. So for a class with Stanley on the use of force, I wanted to see what left the Bosnians out of this universe of moral obligation or geopolitical consensus. It took me all of 30 seconds to go through my head: So who have we helped? Let’s figure out what they had that the Bosnians didn’t. The Armenians? The Jews? The Cambodians? The Kurds? These were the ones I knew about. Burundi? Rwanda? “Have we ever stopped genocide?” That was how it started, I did a paper in late ’96, early ’97. I farmed that paper out to a few people, to Tony [Anthony] Lewis, David Rieff to Marty Peretz at the New Republic and a couple of other people. They all said this is a book. The funny thing was that such a book didn’t exist. I was really surprised that the puzzle of that question—not even the puzzle—we say one thing and do another, that’s nothing new. But just the very fact of genocide, because it was beginning to really permeate our culture, that we’d focus so much on the genocides that were out there in the scholarly community but not on this issue of America [and its policy of non-involvement]. There are so many books on genocide. That’s why I reacted when you said this book was on genocide yet there is nothing on this interplay, on by standing. It seemed like it was worth doing. I thought it would take a year or two. I’m not sure I would have done it if I had known it would take this long. But it was worth it.
RB: I understand the thesis of your book, and I’m sorry to have misstated it. What I wanted to get to was that you are faced with—and I am sure you are not presenting this as an exhaustive list—six or seven instances in the 20th century of genocide. Whatever your position is and how the evidence about policy accretes, you are also dealing with harrowing, horrific, perhaps incomprehensible facts of slaughter, massacre, rape, torture and you have to keep reading and being aware of the concrete evidence. How did that affect you?
SP: It makes you like baseball. It makes you find your outlets. The way that it affected me most—the substance of what I had to read about, again and again—is that it made it all feel very urgent. The pressure that one would put on oneself anyway, was compounded exponentially. I just really felt the weight of these stories. The fact that I was writing about America made it easier because I had a goal. It was very concrete. I was hoping that the book would service future victims. It was wildly ambitious, but that was the motivator. And maybe like a physician for the most part you block out or you develop this insulated way of processing the gore. But there are definitely moments when it hits you. I mean very bad moments.
RB: I don’t know if we create an excuse for people and ourselves, but somehow it becomes understandable that we create this notion of compassion fatigue to allow for inaction or by standing. As you exhume the facts from Armenia to Kosovo, did you become exhausted or desensitized?
SP: It becomes more overwhelming and paralyzing the more distance you have. I actually think the closer you get, the more you see it as a discreet set of individuals setting out to do certain things for their own reasons, and if you are a nerd like I am, you get into the mechanics of the particular case. It doesn’t feel like, “Woe is we, woe is the world.” And that’s why you really have to choose your battles and cases. If I had done all the genocides, then I wouldn’t have been able to do each case as carefully as I was able to. I was thinking, this morning, about how I kept going. One of the virtues of a book like this is that if I got really depressed or exhausted or bored with a particular case, I could just drop it. People would ask, “Where are you this week?” I’d say, “I’m in Rwanda or I’m Kurdistan or Armenia or Turkey.” So you have your mechanisms, but definitely once you get into it, especially if you take a character approach—both at individuals on this side of the ocean and those who are orchestrating the crimes and even victims—it feels quite manageable and much more discreet and soluble.
RB: When you say character approach, was it a deliberate intention of yours to focus on people like Henry Morgenthau, Sr., Raphael Lemkin, Sen. William Proxmire, Rep McCloskey and Richard Holbrooke?
SP: It didn’t start that way, no. I wish I had been so smart at the beginning to know that would be the way to do it. It’s a very inductive book. It’s a very honest book—whatever the criticisms it’s going to get or gets—in that I went in with no particular thesis, with just this puzzle and an effort to understand it. Again and again, I would see these patterns repeating themselves. It was good I wasn’t getting my Ph.D. so I didn’t have to set out a whole series of theses up front. So I could actually just say, “Huh!” People say to me, “I’m surprised that you were surprised.” Which is a whole other thing. But I went in just to track what happened in each case, and then to do the reporting and to understand what was motivating those who were formulating policy on this side of the ocean. What I was going to do initially, in the first version of the book as I thought structurally about the chapters, is have a chapter on these people that I kept encountering, not a chronological narrative straight through but basically by theme. One of the themes was going to be dissenters. And then a Hollywood screenwriter friend—I was well over half way into my research—said to me, “Why would you do that?” At the time I was totally fixated on the structure that I had and he said, “Why don’t you use these incredible people that you keep finding and make them the vehicle for telling the story?” Everyone has those moments, if they are lucky, and I thought, “Oh my god, you are totally right.” What was great was that I hadn’t gone out to find them. They just came to me. You couldn’t talk about any of these issues without learning about these characters.
RB: What is it about these dissenters, that they can’t stop trying to get the world to pay attention to genocidal episodes?
SP: The thing that unites all of them is that they have had some kind of personal encounter with evil or its detritus. In the case of Bob Dole, he was briefed by an Armenian survivor and himself a witness to some Serb thuggery. In the case of Morgenthau, he had been present and on the scene of the crime. Galbrath saw the destroyed Kurdish villages, Lemkin, of course, a Holocaust survivor himself, and somebody who had grown up interested in atrocities before that. Most of them have some kind of personal connection where they couldn’t look away. My experience in Bosnia—I lived in Berlin before I worked in Washington—the [Bosnian] refugees were pouring into Berlin in ’92 and I paid them virtually no attention. I was overwhelmed or uninterested or I didn’t know any other war or “what can you do?” By virtue of being put on it, I had to look. I couldn’t look away. And similarly these individuals had reasons. There is usually some kind of catalytic event. I’d say that there were some number of people who looked and then looked away, but for most people we have a preemptive mechanism that causes us not to look. So we tell ourselves a story about it being “a problem from hell” and these people killing each other for thousands of years and there being nothing we could do. That is a shield from actually processing the atrocities. In other words, if you know there is nothing you can do, why look carefully at what’s going on? It just makes you feel bad. So that’s one thing that unites them. They have had been forced to look. Either by geographical proximity, by friends or personal connection. Jesse Helms, who took a stand on the Kurds, happened to have some Kurdish hunger strikers demonstrate at his church. The other thing that unites most of them is that they are people who stand apart from the herd anyway. They are not “fitter-inners.” They are not people whose lives you look at and say, “They were company [men] and then woof, they snapped.” There are exceptions. Some people are company men. Frank McCloskey [of Indiana] voted more with the Democrats than any representative in the Congress. But on Bosnia, he thought Clinton’s policy was untenable, and that was that. He had gone on a Congressional trip and encountered body parts. But there is a loner’s quality to Galbrath, Proxmire, Lemkin and even Morgenthau, to an extent. He was self-conscious about being a Jew in the political establishment. There was something that made them feel a little on the fringe and that both emboldened them and probably hurt their cause as well.
RB: Are you interested in exploring that theme further?
SP: I am (chuckles). I was just saying to a friend of mine that I haven’t had a new idea in such a long time. I’m going to do something on AIDS in South Africa and Mbeki. I’m going to learn about something that I don’t know anything about. I think that something that I will always come back to in my writing is this question that you ask, “What makes these people tick?” I get into a little bit in the conclusion. What do they have in common and what do they not have in common? But it’s hard. I don’t remember the name of the movie—but a Holocaust survivor who is rescued in a small village in France where they rescued a bunch of Jews in WWII. This guy grows up, this person who has been rescued, and makes a documentary, and he interviews people in the village about what made them do what they did. What is so amazing—and you see this with all rescuers, people who actually put their lives on the line—is that they just look at the person asking the question like, “Huh? What do you mean why did I do it? What else was I going to do?” So what is extraordinary about these people is that it is not actually experienced as a big decision. It’s totally intuitive. The question though still is, “How do you get that first order predisposition or climate?” But, it’s complicated.
RB: No one would say they were for genocide, most people would say they would support measures to do something about genocide and yet…
SP: …but yeah that was the puzzle. It was never between “Never Again” and “Again and Again.” It was people’s self-identity would be so tied up in the idea that they would behave in a certain way when confronted with genocide. That sort of begs the question, “What do they mean by genocide? How do they recognize it?” There is a lot of wiggle room even on the epistemological side, but the main wiggle is in rationalization. There is rationalization about the nature of the violence on the ground, and then there is rationalization about what one person as an individual can do when confronted with all the systemic obstacles.
RB: What is also challenging here is that Lemkin creates the word genocide, the UN codifies it and then 40 or 50 years later you quote an exchange between a reporter and the State Department spokesman where the question is asked, “How many acts of genocide make a genocide?” and…
SP: …As they do the genocide jig, as they dance away from it…
RB: …perhaps more interesting than the legal definition is what scale of terror and criminality measures gross human rights violations, war crimes and genocide. We can accept human rights abuse because that’s what happens in conflicts, but once genocide is pronounced then all humanity is obliged to act?
SP: I don’t think there is one being established. We don’t do much about the top and we don’t do much about crimes against humanity. I don’t think there is much of a scale.
RB: Is it your feeling that the intentional failure to identify genocide came from a need to avoid a moral obligation. That is, if we acknowledge genocide taking place then all people of conscience are obliged to act.
SP: Yeah, but I also think there is a moral obligation to do something about gross human rights violations. I may be in less cluttered company around gross human rights violations than I am around systematic destruction of peoples. I don’t think there are people who would say they are for human rights violations either. And indeed I think, when polled, people would say we should take measures to stop human rights abuse. But there is a political cachet or rightness around genocide. There is the raw numbers issue, which is there are more dead people. And my point here is: if we are not doing anything about this, you can imagine what we are doing about the lesser crimes. (By lesser, I just mean lesser in terms of numbers.) It’s a little disingenuous because we are more prone—as a government, not as a people—to tackle arrests of journalists and lower-scale human rights abuse than they are genocide. The fear with genocide is the minute you engage, you are going to get dragged in to do the real deal, to send in troops and to taking serious and political and military risks. Our government is capable of being more responsive to wide-spread arrests of political prisoners, to torture and things like that, that they will engage diplomatically. What’s amazing about genocide is that not that we don’t send in out troops—which is disappointing to me—we don’t do anything. Except for Bosnia. There is no denunciation, no economic sanctions, no use of technology to jam hate radio or tools being used to propagate hate. There is an all-system shutdown. Where lesser human rights abuses are prone to generate something. My prescription would be that the level of American and international engagement would ratchet up commensurate with the abuse on the ground. So you have human rights abuses, you are playing, you are engaging diplomatically from the low to the high level. You are thinking about economic sanctions. You start to see ethnic cleansing, same thing, you are in there, and then when you move into the zone and you start to see systematic murder and deportation and rape, it’s not like it’s an on/off switch. You are getting ever more alarmed and deploying ever more resources. Eventually, militarily, if you are in that situation.
RB: You introduce Hirschman‘s categories of futility, perversity and jeopardy in reviewing American response to genocide. His was not specifically theory about genocide?
SP: This is again my wildly innocent and vaguely illiterate self: Stumbling upon theories long after I identified these patterns and suddenly I would read a book where somebody says, “And by the way there is a theory for this.” In this case it was Albert Hirschman, whose entire corpus I went on to read because he is a genius. He wrote this book called The Rhetoric of Reaction about social justice and the variety of ways in that we (our government) talk ourselves into believing that nothing useful can be done to make the world a better place. If you think about welfare, instituting some kind of ambitious welfare or social security, the response of everyone is, “What good will it do? People who don’t want to work are not going to work. Put them on the payroll and it will have perverse consequences because they will become even lazier.” Or, “If we do it, okay, it will make work for this select group but you jeopardize what you already have.” Your health care program or your this or your that. This book was recommended to me as I was describing to somebody some of the patterns I saw. I didn’t have the handy dandy phrases to describe what I was seeing. He also wrote a book called Exit Voice Loyalty, which was helpful in thinking about why nobody ever resigns on the basis of grappling with this dissonance between their self-identity and governmental policy. Of course, the Bosnia case is the exception [a number of foreign service officers resigned].
RB: When you started the book were you writing a history, a legal brief, a broadside?
SP: I don’t really know. A history, I suppose. The editor who bought—it was originally bought by Random House—when I finished the first draft of the book, it was a little longer than it is now. It wasn’t as tight but it was a good book…
RB:…you should be proud—it’s a good and important book. It should have a long and significant life…
SP: I hope so, but somebody didn’t think so. I wrote this history and the original person who bought it, I think, expected a broadside and basically dropped the book. He wanted a polemic and personal account. I said, “People don’t know the history. There are two ways to do this. You can tell people that it’s bad to allow genocide or you can show people how we allow genocide again and again. And I know how to do both and this way is the better way.” I am now speaking more confidently than I did at the time. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had an instinct that this was the right way. I thought, “I want to reach as many people as possible. Maybe he’s right.” But I knew that this was readable, and I had people who were not in the genocide or human rights business who were loving the book and finding it a page turner. I felt like he was really wrong—or I hoped that he was wrong. So I found another publisher, finally. Really, it was rejected by practically every house in New York. Then Basic Books took a chance on it. I managed to convince—actually it didn’t take much—Mike Kelley was interested at The Atlantic Monthly in having me do a magazine version of the Rwanda story.
RB: Is that the article that won the Atlantic a National Magazine Award?
RB: That raises your stock, doesn’t it?
SP: One would hope, but boy…
RB: …so there was your Rwanda article [September 2001]. Just this week there is an article in the New Yorker [Joseph Leylveld, May 27, 2002] on the Milosevic trial at the Hague. A month or so ago there was a piece on the gassing of the Kurds in Iraq, again in the New Yorker [Jeffrey Goldberg, March 25, 2002] and recently 60 Minutes had a piece on Dr. Christine Gosden and the after effects of the gassing of the Kurds. Is there is more attention being paid to such abuses?
SP: The Iraqi thing is sui generis. It has to do with this administration’s designs. That has to be considered apart from some of the other things that one could mention like…
RB: …I don’t follow that. What has that got to do with the fact that CBS and the New Yorker decided that these were newsworthy stories?
SP: Because there is a real relationship of what people’s sense is newsworthy and what the U.S. Government’s policy is going to be.
RB: I’m shocked.
SP: Shock! Shock! I think there is a greater ripeness to talk about Iraq than there ever was, certainly than when the atrocities were being carried out in the ‘80s. 60 Minutes, to its credit, has done something on Gosden before. Regarding Iraq, there was a ripeness to talk about Saddam because he was and remained an enemy from ’91 on. The accountability thing has some traction. [But] It took a trial of the enormity of the Milosevic trial to get New Yorker coverage. I pitched them on the Arusha tribunal and Rwanda and they weren’t interested.
RB: They weren’t interested?
SP: I can’t tell what was me and what was the subject. But I think it was largely the subject. The New Yorker is very hard to write for, but the subject was very hard to sell. It’s [genocide awareness] is in the air a bit.
RB: A bit?
SP: 9/11…it really cuts both ways. I’m really seeing it in the response to my book.
RB: Which is what?
SP: On the one hand, there is a greater public receptivity to foreign-policy stories and even those that implicate justice issues and not just security issues. On the other hand, it all feels kind of off-point. When you have in the news talk of nuclear attacks and major biological and chemical attacks on this country. I’m having a hard time getting any sense of policy or political traction around this subject. For all the critical acclaim—I’ve been very lucky—but not terribly good sales at all. If you are not in it for the artistic agenda or the character-development agenda but actually in it to change policy, you really need it to be championed in an important place—a subject like this. What the Bush administration has shown by un-signing the International Criminal Court Treaty, by its general disregard for multi-lateralism and the United Nations and for addressing potential causes—not just symptoms—this isn’t going to rank very high. They say that genocide is different. But again, they have this on/off switch. They haven’t learned the real lesson of Saddam. Which is, you have to know who your partners are. You can’t have reliable partners in a war on terrorism if they are torturing and killing their own people.
SP: …Uzbekistan, Pakistan, you name it. We are back to a Cold War set of tactical alliances. The lesson of the book—if there is one—leaving aside the issue of genocide, is that doing deals with devils means setting the stage for policies that are going to bite you later. And we do get bitten. We got bitten with our alliance with Saddam, we got bitten by ignoring the destruction of the Bosnians. Bin Laden got in there, traveled on a Bosnian passport. That kind of thing is going to happen. The real lesson, looking back on the century, is that you don’t actually know where the seeds of resentment, indeed aggression, towards the United States are going to be planted. Which is why you would really need to think systemically about an overhaul of US foreign policy. Or at least a more long-term approach.
RB: So in addition to the moral imperatives of responding to genocide there is the enlightened self-interest aspect. I’m wondering what your model/example is for a book that has significantly altered public policy in the last twenty years?
SP: Oh god, that’s a very good question.
RB: Any of those books—and I am sure there are some, though I haven’t given it much thought—such books are groundbreaking and paradigmatic and cut their own path, so who knows?
SP: Who knows? That’s right.
RB: So, cheer up.
SP: Cheer up. Exactly. It’s an excellent question as to what the models are. Robert Kaplan’s books have had profound and very negative influence on the thinking of policymakers. You are right, one has to think long term. I imagine that Peter Hopkirk’s work and some of the stuff on jihad and Central Asia. I have some colleagues here whose work has finally gotten the attention that it long deserved. Part of this work is having done it and then waiting for the world to orient itself around it.
RB: When I tell people what I have been reading, the word ‘genocide’ certainly stimulates a glazed, almost pained look, “Oh.” It seems to be a conversation stopper.
SP: That’s true. That’s why I was so quick to say that the book is much more about American foreign policy. I want there to be a public splash around the book. The systemic effect that you are describing will come, if it comes. I can hope that it comes, and this book will have a shelf life, I certainly agree. But the more people read this book and the more there is a sense of snob factor around having this book even if they don’t read it, the more—apart from whether a president says, “I believe in the moral argument and in the enlightened self-interest argument”—that they will in the spirit of covering their asses want to not end up in a book like this, someday. If the book languishes in libraries and is read by graduate students that’s great. But what it won’t do is have its own footstep effect for officials within the government. Either because moral discourse is unfashionable or because enlightened self-interest is a long-term proposition and therefore hard to get a short-term institution like the Congress or the Executive to mobilize around. There could just be that, “I don’t want to go down as the person who allowed that or who shut it down.” And indeed, one of the lessons of the book is a doable one even when we are fighting a war on terrorism, which is: don’t make our response all or nothing. Let’s open up the tool kit and think about the things that are relatively cost-free to us.
RB: Like the instance you cite in Rwanda where a phone call to a hotel seems to have saved some lives…
SP: Exactly. So that’s why I want people to read it.
RB: Has anyone taken exception to your thesis that, in fact, U.S. policy succeeded, that it is one of non-engagement?
SP: Not to my knowledge. I’m sure there are people out there grumbling about the book. It’s hard because the record is so overwhelming. People who know government know that I am right about that, in that if you don’t lead on genocide, if the president doesn’t say it’s a priority and make public speeches and do contingency military planning, then the inertia and the denial and the costs prevail. Inevitably it’s over-determined. Throw in the journalists and the public and all the other people who aren’t drawing attention to—my major criticisms come from the Chomsky Left—people who criticize me, “I’m surprised that you are surprised. How could you write about America allowing genocide when America commits genocide? How could you think the Americans could ever do any good?” I say, “Look, where we differ is that I take the system as it is and I agree that there is a serious postmodern demolition of the system that can be done—it just isn’t mine and you have done it. Frankly, it hasn’t done any good as far as I can tell. It might make us a little more sensitive to power structures and so on. But the system is what it is.”
RB: What is the Chomskyite definition of genocide that would apply to America in the 20th century?
SP: I would think Vietnam, if you look at the genocide convention—I don’t know. Broadly speaking, they are saying America’s hands are soiled, that’s the story of the 20th century. But my point is that the system is what it is and you can hope for enlightened leadership and hope for presidential epiphany or the long term strategic approach. Or you can acknowledge that system is structured in this fashion and it does work and is responsive to political constituencies who are loud and can create the impression of cost. Ultimately it’s not just a book about failure. You see why the tribunals came into being. You can see why we got the intervention in Bosnia. It’s because people took the system as fixed and worked within it. I am all for changing the system and having a United Nations that has a mind and a bank account and an army of its own, but we are not close to that happening. In the meantime, I don’t want the Burundians to die. I’m not sure what people on the left would do about the Burundians.
RB: I thought it was significant, as you pointed out, that prior to the Gulf War and other engagements, when polled, Americans are against engagement or intervention. But once the President commits there is a rally-around-the-flag effect. Why is there a political cost, other than in Somalia?
SP: Well, it’s pretty big. “Vietmalia” they call it now. There is no gain in doing the right thing. The lesson of Kosovo and Somalia. You don’t get any extra credit for doing the right thing. There is a rally-around-the-flag effect, but one of the theories in Washington—it’s untested, I think—is that if the intervention is one predicated on humanitarian ends rather than hardcore security, if it’s soft and fluffy and about moral things, you will have a rally-around-the-flag effect but the minute you start taking casualties you will have a commensurate, for every hundred casualties, dropping of support. And that one lesson of the last century is that foreign policy loses you votes and political capital. Terrorism is one of the few instances—and it was less Bush’s response and more our being attacked that caused us to close ranks. So I think it’s that you do the right thing and you get whacked. You do nothing and there is no cost. You do the right thing and it goes wrong and there is significant cost. So, remind me why this is a good idea from a political standpoint? It’s up to us on the outside—we are going to be a long time in mobilizing this constituency—I think there is more hope in the shame factor. Which is why my ambition for the book is so unrealistic. There is more hope in individuals being afraid reputationally, then there is in real-time political mobilization around an ongoing genocide. See what I mean?
RB: I do. I don’t know why you think that? Because Clinton and Bush will be so concerned about their legacies?
SP: I’m not saying there is a lot of hope. I’m just saying there is more hope in that than imagining progressives who are not good at mobilizing domestic constituencies around humanitarian subjects are not very good at lead advocacy. I wasn’t saying there was great hope, just more hope in a simpler accountability expo strategy than in a real-time mobilization strategy.
RB: You quote David Rieff’s interpretation of “Never again.” (Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West) which is…
SP: “Never again will Germans kill Jews in the 1940s in Europe.”
RB: I take that to be the ultimate deflation of that pompous and sanctimonious slogan. They don’t really mean it.
SP: I think what they mean is that never again should genocide happen. Wouldn’t it be nice…
RB: …yeah wouldn’t it be nice (both laugh). Does it seem like Americans aren’t interested in foreign policy and that in essence it will always be conducted and formulated by an elite? If you go to Fargo, North Dakota, people don’t talk about it unless it involves grain subsidies.
SP: Having just been on a 20-city book tour I think people want to talk about it, it’s just they don’t think they have much specialized knowledge and they won’t pick up the phone about it. There is this new ripeness to talk about it and to understand “why they hate us.” And there has always been a willingness to talk about the Holocaust. It’s a quirky thing that we will remember various aspects of our foreign-policy history. There is a disconnect. The public is more prone to think in terms of values and morality, but the elites think both on behalf of the public—they use the public as an alibi—and because of their own lingua franca and interests, they think only of security and economic prosperity. So values are really going to get left out of foreign policy. The problem now is that by leaving values out of foreign policy we are making ourselves such a target. In America people are going to feel that. There is some chance that only that would wake us out of our slumber.
RB: Certainly statements by leadership contain ethical concerns…
SP: The trim is moral…
RB: Which is a reflection, you believe, of the concerns of the public?
SP: Which they know works but the motivation is short term and almost nothing to do with morality.
RB: Essentially, realpolitik.
SP: That’s why we were talking about Iraq. If I hear one more time that this is a man who was gassing his own people, I’m going to jump off a building. Yes, he was, and we were giving him a billion dollars a year while he was doing it, as a matter of fact! That sells, Christine Gosden sells. But it didn’t sell enough to motivate the government.
RB: Anything you learned from your tour?
SP: I committed myself a long time ago that if I could get satisfied with the quality of the book that I would become like Lemkin and try to do something about it. I felt like there were stories in there that could captivate people and that that was the way in, to have a conversation about some of these people. Talking about genocide is harder, you deal with the glazed-eye effect. It was grueling and degrading, to be doing three or four things a day. There was a definite ripeness in some surprising places like in Boise. The city leaders came out en masse. There was a hunger to have a conversation. In other places, disappointing, six people in Nelson Mandela t-shirts.
RB: I won’t ask where that was. You do make the point that silence is frequently mistaken for indifference.
SP: It holds genocide to a higher standard. There is very rarely a bottom-up demand for anything in foreign policy. The only time you will get it is to get the US out of places rather to get them in. Even if the book became a best seller you would still need a mechanism to mobilize people. Look, two million people go through the Holocaust museum every year. We have a real challenge on our hands in terms of mobilization. But the first thing is get an awareness and a sense of shame out there. And a sense of dissonance to debunk the consensus around “Never again!” Very few people have reflected on it the way Rieff did. For most people it’s a soothing forward-looking narrative. So the first thing is to say, “Hey, by the way, we haven’t done enough.” So that the next time something happens, you say, “Oh gosh, this is like that thing that we always let happen.” Rather than say, “This isn’t like the Holocaust in x or y ways.” We’ll see. It’s going to be a long haul.
RB: Is this, making people pay attention to the lack of response to human rights abuses, a life-long project for you?
SP: I think so. I’m looking for help. What I’m going to contribute, I hope, again and again, is the capacity to bring the acts on the ground together with the policy story with a kind of human narrative. There are people who are a lot better than me, at mobilizing constituencies around an issue like this. That may sound like a cop out. I’m thinking of my next project—in the near term it won’t be on genocide—it will be on AIDS. So I think I will always be drawn to the worst things. The worst things that we take as background conditions that later seem obvious. The question at the heart of this book is an obvious one. And the question of how Mbeki could have the policy he has had on AIDS for 5 years is a question in the back of everyone’s mind. There are a lot of logical problems with making AIDS number one, but the human cost is so enormous against that absence of leadership that again you have the same kind of puzzle. There are logical reasons with illogical consequences and distinctly immoral consequences.
RB: Thank you.
SP: It was great. Thank you.